The Reform Jew Who Changed Truman's Mind

by Samuel A. Montague

If it hadn't been for a little-known Reform Jew from Kansas City, Missouri, there might not have been a State of Israel.

The year was 1948. Dr. Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, had arrived in New York from London to meet with U.S. President Harry S. Truman. But Truman canceled the meeting. He was in no mood to discuss the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

What was bothering the president? Earlier in the year, an American Zionist delegation had met with him in the White House and demanded immediate action on behalf of the thousands of homeless Holocaust victims seeking refuge in a Jewish state. When Truman's response fell short of their expectations, the visitors became adamant. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of Cleveland, OH literally pounded on the president's desk. Truman was outraged. "No one, but no one, comes into the office of the President of the United States and shouts at him, or pounds on his desk. If anyone is going to do any shouting or pounding in here, it will be me," and with that, Truman had them ushered out of the Oval Office. "I've had it with those hotheads," he told his staff. "Don't ever admit them again, and what's more, I also never want to hear the word Palestine mentioned again."

When Weizmann learned about the incident, he was devastated. "Who," he kept asking, "who could get the president to change his mind?" One name came up repeatedly: Truman's lifelong friend, Eddie Jacobson.

*      *      *

They had first met when Eddie was 14 and Harry was 20. Eddie worked as a stock boy at a shirt store, Harry as a bookkeeper at a nearby bank. Their differences in age and religion (Harry was a Baptist, Eddie a Jew) didn't matter.

Harry left his position at the bank to take over the family farm, but the two men kept in touch. The friendship was rekindled when they discovered that each had joined the Missouri National Guard, Harry as a second lieutenant in Battery D and Eddie as a sergeant in Battery F. With the outbreak of World War I, their units merged into the 129th Field Artillery. Truman was put in charge of the regimental canteen in addition to other duties. Having little knowledge of merchandising, he immediately requested that Sergeant Jacobson be transferred to his unit. Together they ran the most efficient canteen in the area. Recognized for its exemplary management, Truman was promoted to the rank of captain and appointed battery commander.

The two friends served together in France. Returning from the war aboard the same ship, they talked about their future plans and decided to open a men's haberdashery in the heart of downtown Kansas City. Truman and Jacobson's Gents Furnishings prospered for about two years, until the nation slid into a depression in 1921. The business now in bankruptcy, Truman resolved to go into politics, and Jacobson took to the road selling menswear. Harry married his lifelong sweetheart, Bess Wallace, and Eddie wed Bluma Rosenbaum. Born of immigrant Lithuanian parents, Eddie had grown up in an Orthodox family, but he wasn't interested in religion. A first-generation American, he always considered himself "a real live nephew of Uncle Sam." It wasn't until his marriage that Eddie joined Bluma's Reform temple, B'nai Jehudah in Kansas City.

*      *      *

As a U.S. senator, Truman had protested the failure of America to rescue the Jews of Europe. "Today, not tomorrow," Truman insisted at a Chicago rally in 1944, "we must do all that is humanly possible to provide a haven for all those who can be grasped from the hands of Nazi butchers. Free lands must be opened to them."

But now, as president, Truman was finding it difficult to "do the right thing." His secretary of state, General George C. Marshall, objected to recognition of a Jewish state in Palestine. And both the State Department establishment and U.S. delegates to the UN, especially the ambassador, Warren Austin, were hostile to the Zionist cause.

*      *      *

Chaim Weizmann realized he had to play the only card he had--Eddie Jacobson. He asked Frank Goldman, then national president of B'nai Brith, to contact the man from Kansas City and convince him that the Jewish people urgently needed him to intercede and reschedule the canceled meeting. As time was of the essence, Goldman phoned Jacobson at 2:00 a.m. He had a hard time explaining to an angry Jacobson that he was calling on behalf of Weizmann.

Hearing about the rude behavior of the Zionists in the president's office, Eddie, himself a non-Zionist, refused to get involved. "In my thirty-seven years of friendship with President Truman, I have never asked a favor of him," he told Goldman. "And when you tell me that he doesn't ever want to hear the word Palestine mentioned again, I'm certainly not going to jeopardize our friendship by antagonizing him now."

Goldman explained to Jacobson that many lives were at stake. Was he prepared to bear the responsibility for the suffering of countless Jewish women and children who had no place to go? The argument worked. "I'll see what I can do," Jacobson promised.

Later that morning, Jacobson called the White House, only to learn that Truman had left for Key West and would not be back for three weeks. He contacted Goldman and said he would be back in touch after the president's return to Washington. Three weeks later, Jacobson spoke with Matt Connelly, the president's aide, who said that Harry would be glad to see him, with one caveat--that Palestine not be mentioned.

*      *      *

Arriving at the White House, Jacobson was escorted into the Oval Office through a private entrance to avoid the media. The president welcomed him warmly and pointed to a chair. Jacobson sat down. Truman asked about Eddie's family. (Truman had visited the Jacobson home frequently and, on occasion, had played piano duets with Eddie's daughter, Gloria.) Jacobson responded in kind, inquiring about Mrs. Truman and Margaret.

"They're all fine. What brings you to Washington this time?"

"Harry, you know me. I'm no diplomat. I don't know how to beat around the bush. Please. I want you to talk to Dr. Weizmann."

"You what! I can't believe this. Despite my objection, you dare ask that I see Weizmann?"

"Well, Mr. President, at least I honored your request. I didn't mention Palestine."

Truman interrupted harshly. "Eddie, I'm fed up. I'm sick and tired of Zionists who think they can tell me what to do. They will eventually prejudice everyone trying to help them. They came in here and shouted at me, and made threats concerning the future political support of American Jews."

Placing both hands on his desk, Truman leaned forward and exclaimed, "If Jesus couldn't please them when he was on earth, how can you or anyone else expect me to have any luck?"

Listening to the president's outburst, Jacobson was dumbfounded. In all their years of friendship, no sharp words had ever passed between them; yet here was Harry Truman bellowing at him. At that moment Eddie Jacobson felt for the first time that his dear old friend was close to becoming anti-Semitic. He sat frozen in his chair, tears in his eyes.

Then Jacobson caught sight of a table with a miniature statue of General Andrew Jackson mounted on a horse, one of Truman's most prized possessions. Walking over to the statue, Jacobson placed one hand on Jackson's shoulder and reached out with the other to the president. In an almost inaudible voice he made a final plea.

"Harry! All your life you've had a hero. You probably know more about Andrew Jackson than anyone in America. I remember you were always reading about him. Then when you were county judge you had a new Jackson County Court House built in Kansas City, and you had a life-size statue of this very model cast and placed on the lawn in front of the courthouse. "Well, Harry, I too have a hero. A man I've never met, but a real gentleman and a great statesman. I'm talking about Chaim Weizmann. He is a very sick man. Yet he traveled thousands of miles just to see you and plead the cause of his people. Now you refuse to see him because you were insulted by some impudent American Zionists, even though you know that Weizmann had absolutely nothing to do with them. It doesn't sound like you, Harry. I thought you could take this stuff. I wouldn't be here if I didn't know that you would see him so you can be properly and accurately informed about the situation as it exists in Palestine."

When Jacobson finished, Truman didn't say a word; he turned and looked out over the Rose Garden. All Jacobson could see was the back of his friend's chair.

As they sat there in silence, Jacobson remembered Truman telling him about the time he spent two days alone, looking out another window, before making up his mind to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. "The longer we sat," Jacobson later recalled, "the more I prayed he wouldn't drop one on me!"

Then the stillness in the room was broken by the sound of Truman's fingers drumming on the arm of his chair. Slowly he turned around, stopped, looked directly into the eyes of his old friend, and said, "Okay. You baldheaded son of a bitch.... I'll see him."

Keeping his word, Truman invited Weizmann to the White House on March 18, 1948. During the meeting the president assured Weizmann that he wished to see justice done in Palestine without bloodshed. If a Jewish state is declared, with or without United Nations affirmation, the United States would recognize it without delay, he promised.

On that same day, the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine reported its failure to arrange any compromise between Jews and Arabs. It recommended that the UN undertake a temporary trusteeship of Palestine.

Truman had promised both Jacobson and Weizmann that the U.S. would recognize a Jewish state if it were proclaimed. Yet, on March 19, 1948, Warren Austin, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, without the president's knowledge or White House clearance, announced on national radio that the American government opposed the partition of Palestine.

Truman quickly contacted Jacobson and Weizmann to reassure them that Austin had misrepresented the U.S. position. He wrote in his diary: "This morning I find that the State Department has reversed my Palestine policy. The first I know about it is what I see in the papers! Now, I am placed in a position of a liar and double-crosser. I never felt so low in my life. What is not generally understood is that the Zionists are not the only ones to be considered in the Palestine question. There are other interests that come into play, each with its own agenda. The military is concerned with the problems of defending a newly created small country from attacks by much larger and better trained Arab nations. Others have selfish interests concerning the flow of Arab oil to the U.S. Since they all cannot have their way, it is a perfect example of why I had to remember that 'The Buck Stops Here.'"

On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, read a "Declaration of Independence" proclaiming the establishment of the State of Israel. Eleven minutes later, the United States issued the following statement, signed by President Truman: "This government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine, and recognition has been requested by the provisional government thereof. The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new State of Israel."

Thus did Eddie Jacobson, a Reform Jew and a non-Zionist, risk his lifelong friendship with the president of the United States to help create the State of Israel.

Samuel A. Montague, a member of the New Reform Temple in Kansas City, MO, is author of Harry and Me, a dramatization of the Truman-Jacobson story.

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